"The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus", Folio from a Falnama (Book of Omens)
Not on view
This exceptionally large folio depicts seven Christian men, known as the Seven Sleepers and their dog Qitmir, who escaped persecution by miraculously sleeping in a cave for 309 years. The contrasts between the dark cave and the colorful rocks, the commotion outside and the peaceful sleepers inside reinforce the narrative. The crowned figure on a white horse, most likely the Roman emperor Decius (ruled 249-51 AD) who persecuted the men, is led by Satan, portrayed here with dark skin, a white beard and a serpent emerging from his neck. The picture would have faced a text page that contains a positive augury.
This artwork is meant to be viewed from right to left. Scroll left to view more.
Use your arrow keys to navigate the tabs below, and your tab key to choose an item
Title:"The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus", Folio from a Falnama (Book of Omens)
Geography:Attributed to Iran, Qazvin
Medium:Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Dimensions:Painting: H. 23 in. (58.4 cm) W. 17 3/4 in. (45.1 cm) Mat : H. 28 in. (71.1 cm) W. 22 in. (55.9 cm) Frame: H. 30 1/2 in. (77.5 cm) W. 24 1/2 in. (62.2 cm)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1935
Two Folios from a Falnama: nos. 50.23.1 and 35.64.3
Massumeh Farhad, Serpil Bağci, and others have substantially clarified the context and meaning of the manuscript of the Falnama (Book of Omens) from which the large illustrations 50.23.1 and 35.64.3 come. Farhad and Bağci have identified four Falnama manuscripts from Safavid Iran and Ottoman Turkey, produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the dispersed copy attributed to Iran during the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524–76). The images from this Falnama, including this folio and 35.64.3, differ from other Safavid manuscript illustrations most obviously in their large size and in the scale of their pictorial elements. Yet, the use of these pictures for bibliomancy (fortune-telling with books) also affected the format of the manuscript and the relationship of images to text. As Farhad and Bağci have noted, each illustration in the dispersed Falnama precedes the text, which contains poetic couplets and prognostications in prose—an indication that the pictures could be interpreted with or without the aid of the text on the facing page. Although each image essentially stands alone and is not linked by a narrative thread to the text and image that precede or follow it, the subject matter of the dispersed Falnama illustrations does fall into definable categories, including "Muhammad and his descendants; tombs and sanctuaries; the Abrahamic prophets; sages, heroes, and villains; and eschatological themes."
The practice of bibliomancy involved first making a wish or asking for guidance, then opening the book at random to a picture and the text facing it, which the seeker would interpret in light of his question. Seventeenth-century travelers describe diviners in public places in Iran and Turkey using images (but not text) to make prognostications for passersby. The arrangement of the Falnama from which these images come would have instead enabled an individual to consult both image and text without the need for an intermediary. According to Farhad and Bağci, Shah Tahmasp, the likely patron of this Falnama, was known to hold divination sessions with the women of the Safavid court. Such a large-scale Falnama would have suited these gatherings, since a group would have no trouble seeing whatever details were being employed to interpret the omen.
Stuart Cary Welch and others have attributed the paintings in the dispersed Falnama to Aqa Mirak and ‘Abdul ‘Aziz, two of Shah Tahmasp’s court painters, but their authorship cannot be confirmed by any text or inscription. Nonetheless, many details of the ruined architecture, complete with storks’ nest and snakes, recall a painting from Shah Tahmasp’s Khamsa of Nizami (1539–43) assigned to Aqa Mirak by Welch. Painted ten to fifteen years after the Khamsa, the Falnama marks a change in style that accompanies its distinct function. Not only are the folios significantly larger than those of earlier royal Safavid manuscripts, but so too are the figures and other pictorial elements, which are also closer to the picture plane than in either Tahmasp’s Shahnama or his Khamsa. Likewise, landscape elements have been simplified, as if to provide a backdrop and not a source of distraction from the main subject.
A similar principle has been applied to "The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus," also known as "The People of the Cave." Here, the Sleepers and their dog form an arc against the black ground of the cave ringed by rocky outcrops. Along the horizon, soldiers look and gesture toward a king on horseback being led by a dark-skinned figure, who can be identified as the devil. As in the previously discussed painting, figures dot the landscape, but here only a few gaze in the direction of the Sleepers. Welch has connected hook-nosed figures such as the soldier to the right of the tree in the foreground with the work of ‘Abdul ‘Aziz, but the attribution of this work to him is not certain.
According to the story, seven youths—either Christians or believers from before the time of Christ, depending on the version—and the dog Qitmir, all of whom were seeking God, were hiding from their persecutors in a cave when God ordered the angel of death to visit them. A pagan king, most likely the equestrian figure at the upper right, blockaded the opening to the cave, but after three hundred years God breathed life into the Sleepers and they awoke. Appearing in both Syriac sources and the Qur’an (Ahl al-Kahf ), this story resonated with Shi‘i Muslims, who believed the twefth Imam (the Mahdi) would return to the world in the same way as the Sleepers. Recitation of all or part of the Surat al-Kahf would protect the faithful against liars and cheats.
Sheila R. Canby in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Massumeh Farhad, and Serpil Bağci. FalnamaThe Book of Omens. Exhibition Catalogue, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, 2009.
2. Ibid., p. 28.
3. Ibid., p. 34.
6. Welch 1979, pp. 138–41.
7. Porter, Venetia. "Amulets Inscribed with the Names of the ‘Seven Sleepers’ of Ephesus in the British Museum." In Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and Its Creative Expressions; Selected Proceedings from the International Colloquium, London, 18–21 October 2003, edited by Fahmida Suleman, pp. 123–34, esp. pp. 124–25.. The Institute of Ismaili Studies, Qur’anic Studies Series, 4. Oxford, 2007.
The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus
The story of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus is referred to in Chapter 18 of the Koran and became a popular legend in the Muslim world as well as the Christian. Seven Christian youths refused to worship idols, and to escape the persecution of the pagan king, concealed themselves and their dog in a cave, where God miraculously put them to sleep. When the king with his retinue tried to seize them, he found no one able to enter the cave and so had it walled up. The site of the cave and duration of sleep vary in different versions of the legend. Scholars have tried to tie the legend to historical personages; widely accepted is the identification of the pagan emperor as Dakyus or Decius (reigned 249–51) and of the Christian emperor during whose reign the sleepers awake briefly before sleeping again as Theodosius II (reigned 408–50).
Manuscripts of the lives of the prophets or of books of omens were traditionally of an unusually large format, which lent itself to a monumentality in design and boldness of presentation, as here. The composition is dominated by the centralized near-circular cave and the figures silhouetted against the dark ground. Courtiers dozing after a picnic of feasting and wine drinking may have served as models for the artist. The attitudes of the bodies suggest youthful relaxation while the beardless faces seems to reflect carefree dreams. The trees and darker-hued rocks strategically placed around the cave appear to act as sentinels for the sleepers, distancing them from the pagan king and his soldiery, and, with the hidden animal faces in the rock contours, dramatizing their miraculous inviolability.
It has been suggested by S. C. Welch that the style of the illustrations from this now dispersed manuscript may be attributed to a group of artists working under the tutelage of the Safavid court painter Aqa Mirak.
Marie Lukens Swietochowski in [Berlin 1981]
People of the Cave
The miracle of the "People of the Cave" (ashaf-i kahf) or the "Seven Sleepers of Ephesus" was first mentioned in Syriac sources, but it also appears in the Koran (18:9-25) and was elaborated by subsequent authors. According to these accounts, some time before the birth of Christ, three youths fled a pagan town, identified by some as Ephesus in present-day Turkey. Soon they were joined by four others, including a shepherd and a dog known as Qitmir. At first they refused to take in the dog for fear its bark would give away the location of the cave they had chosen as their refuge. When the dog addressed them in an eloquent human voice, however, and told them that it, too, was looking for God, they changed their minds. Once in the cave, the seven fell asleep, and God ordered the angel of death to take their souls, but two other angels were ordered to turn over their bodies once a year "so that the earth would not consume their flesh". The pagan king Daqyanus ordered the entrance of the cave to be blocked, and the youths and the dog remained asleep for three hundred nine years, until God decided to breathe life in their spirits again.
One of the most visually powerful illustrations in the dispersed Falnama, the painting depicts a large, dark cave in which the interlocked figures of the seven sleepers create a wide crescent around the contented, slumbering dog. Colored rocks in hues of muted orange, light blue, salmon, and pink surround the cave like a protective aura and are anchored by three small trees.
Accompanied by a group of roaming soldiers,a crowned figure on an elegant white horse stands in the upper right. He probably represents Daqyanus, who is led by Satan, recognizable by his dark skin and collar. Surprisingly, Satan is the only figure in the composition who wears a typical Safavid headgear, characterized by a tall, ribbed baton.
An early illustration of the seven sleepers appears in Rashid al-Din's Jami' al-tawarikh (Compendium of chronicles), in which a vertically oriented cave is squeezed into the left part of the composition. In the Falnama painting, the artist transformed the cave into a circular space and, moving its center space, has artfully intertwined the slumbering figures into an arc around the dog. The arrangement recalls Byzantine models, but a fifteenth-century Timurid composition, now in Istanbul, may have provided another visual source for the artist.
Depictions of the seven sleepers also are included in copies of the slightly later Qisas al-anbiya, the Dresden Falnama (E445, folio 24b), and the Topkapi Persian copy (H.1702, folio 12b). The Dresden illustration relates closely to the dispersed Falnama illustration in scale, composition, and color scheme, and it even includes the crowned figure and Satan at the top. As is typical of the simpler illustrations of the Topkapi Persian copy, the artist ommitted secondary figures and focused attention on the sensitively rendered men. The slumbering figures are shown in poses identical to those in the dispersed Falnama but in reverse, which suggests the artist used a stencil to transfer the composition. The accompanying augury is favorable and emphasizes the importance of Qitmir. Addressing the sleepers' initial reluctance to allow in the dog, the prognostication in the Topkapi Persian copy begins, "I am the dog in the family of Ali; how can I not be safe?"
Massumeh Farhad in [Farhad and Bagci 2009]
1. Al-Tha'labi, p. 697.
2. The story relates that one of the youths went into town, which had become Christian, to buy provisions, but when he tried to pay with obsolete coins, it aroused suspicion and curiosity. Before the new king could reach the cave, the youth returned and informed his companions of what had happened, and the seven decided that it was time to relinquish their souls to God again and died. According to al-Tha'labi (p. 700), by divine intervention, the entrance to the cave was blocked and commemorated by a mosque.
3. Barbara Schmitz had identified the figure as Alexander; See Milstein et al., Stories of the Prophets, Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999, p. 72.
4. Edingburgh University Library, Ms. OR2o, f. 23r.
5. TMS H.2160, f. 83r.
6. For reproduction of the Qisas paintings see Millstein et al 1999 (note 3), pl. XX, figs. 31, 39, and 46. The figures do not appear in the same tightly structured composition as in the Falnama version.
Demotte, Inc., New York, by 1930–35; cat., 1930, no. 69, sold to MMA]
Berlin. Museum für Islamische Kunst, Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. "The Arts of Islam. Masterpieces from the M.M.A.," June 15, 1981–August 8, 1981, no. 78.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rumi and the Sufi Tradition," October 23, 2007–February 3, 2008, no catalogue.
"Persian and Indian Miniature Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 30, no. 12 (December 1935). pp. 248–9, ill. fig. 1 (b/w).
"Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York." In The Arts of Islam. Berlin, 1981. no. 78, pp. 194–95, ill. p. 195 (color).
Tokatlian, Armen. Falnamah: Livre Royal des Sorts. Paris: Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2007. no. 15, pp. 42, 43, ill. (color).
Farhad, Massumeh, and Serpil Bagci. "Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery." In Falnama: The Book of Omens. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2009. no. 42, pp. 160–61, 260, ill. (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Haidar, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 139B, pp. 209–11, ill. p. 211 (color).
The Met Collection API is where all makers, creators, researchers, and dreamers can connect to the most up-to-date data and public domain images for The Met collection. Open Access data and public domain images are available for unrestricted commercial and noncommercial use without permission or fee.
We continue to research and examine historical and cultural context for objects in The Met collection. If you have comments or questions about this object record, please complete and submit this form. The Museum looks forward to receiving your comments.
The Met's collection of Islamic art is one of the most comprehensive in the world and ranges in date from the seventh to the twenty-first century. Its more than 15,000 objects reflect the great diversity and range of the cultural traditions from Spain to Indonesia.